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How UC faced down a global pandemic

Beginning in the early 1980s, the nation was gripped by panic as a mysterious ailment began striking down large numbers of young gay men. The condition soon had a name: human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV.

For nearly two decades after its emergence, an HIV diagnosis was the equivalent of a death sentence. Patients often had just weeks or months to live, a terrifying prognosis made worse by social stigma and fear.

Fast forward to today, and HIV has become a chronic, but survivable condition — a momentous advance that UC physicians and scientists helped pioneer through new antiretroviral medications and enhanced patient care.

In fact, many UC doctors and researchers who were on the front lines in those early years are still in the trenches today, and have begun to speak optimistically about finding a cure.

Among them is UC San Francisco physician Paul Volberding. In 1981, as a new physician at San Francisco General Hospital, his very first patient was a young man covered in lesions from Kaposi’s sarcoma, a rare form of cancer normally found in the very elderly. The unusual diagnosis soon became all too familiar as more young men began showing up with the rare form of cancer.

At UCLA, physician Michael Gottlieb was also noticing an inexplicable rise in young men showing up with pneumonia and other ailments asscociated with a compromised immune system. In a detailed report in the New England Journal of Medicine in late 1981, he and his colleagues were the first to suggest that these patients had somehow acquired an immunodeficiency, allowing for potentially fatal opportunistic infections.

Across the country, the death toll mounted, as cases of Kaposi’s, pneumonia and other unusual conditions skyrocketed. By 1982, the mysterious affliction had been named AIDS, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome.

Today, HIV/AIDS has claimed more the 35 million lives to become arguably the worst pandemic in modern times. Back then, because the new disease primarily affected gay men, it was treated with stigma and shame, even by some in the medical establishment. There was a conspicuous lack of federal research funding, and a great deal of fear, even among those charged with treating patients.

Volberding and his colleagues had a different response. Seeing the enormous suffering and unmet needs of their AIDS patients, they took action. On Jan. 1, 1983, Volberding, Connie Wofsy and Gayling Gee opened Ward 86, the first dedicated AIDS clinic in the country.

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